Chef Profile: Abra Berens, Chef at Granor Farm and Author of Ruffage - Michigan
Hi Abra! Tell us a little bit about yourself. What is your background?
As I reflect back on it now, writing Ruffage and my job at Granor all feel like the result of a million steps along the way. I grew up on a pickle farm to parents who were also anesthesiologists, so the days were really busy. My mom was a really tremendous cook and sitting together for meals were our way of connecting. At 16 I started working in restaurants and felt really at home there—always finding my way into one when I needed side work. During college, I started working at Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, MI. After I graduated, I didn’t want to leave the deli. So I stayed there for an additional two years and eventually moved into the kitchen. It was then that I started toying with the idea of cooking professionally. My chef (and friend) at the time encouraged me to go to Ballymaloe, a small cooking school in Ireland on an 100 acre organic farm. It was there that I knew I wanted my food to be of a place—the way that the food we were cooking was. I moved back to Chicago and started working in restaurants and bakeries there all while toying with the idea of a restaurant on a farm. Then my friend Jess told my husband that he wanted to start farming and have there be a restaurant component. So we started our farm in Northport, MI, farming together full time for 3 years. Farming truly changed the way that I cook—learning so much more about vegetables and how to read the landscape of the plant to make a better dish. I also started writing a food column for the local paper. For a lot of reasons, we closed our farm, but the love of cooking food so directly connected to a place never left me. I kept writing my column and that eventually laid the foundation for Ruffage, and in 2017 a friend alerted me to Granor Farm in Three Oaks and that they were maybe looking for a chef to make meals based around their organic vegetables. It’s truly a dream come true with so many lessons learned along the way. For a long time it felt like, “What am I doing? Are these choices the right ones?” but I couldn’t have written this book or been the chef at Granor without traveling that path one step at a time.
What led to your interest in food? Was cooking always something you loved?
Yes. Like I said, my mom was a really amazing cook mastering everything from spit roasted wood cock to the most perfect BLT. And meals were always how we celebrated big events or just the end of the day. To steal a quote from Dirty Dancing “it’s all I ever wanted to do anyway.”
What did your time at Ballymaloe look like? How did that education influence your cooking style?
The idea of the local food movement had been planted at Zingerman’s Deli and it firmly took root at Ballymaloe. I really internalized how critical good ingredients are to making tasty food. I also really absorbed the idea that a restaurant (or cooking school) can spring from very homey food and be an asset to a farm—showcasing the region and all it has to offer. That has never left me. Plus, cooking under Darina Allen and learning from her matriarch, Myrtle, and then immediately going to cook for Skye Gyngell in London taught me how inspiring beautiful, homey-yet-sophisticated, food could be. It also taught me to never, ever work in a kitchen were someone was screaming at you. I had great examples of highly productive and inspiring kitchens run by calm, driven (and perfection demanding) women who also cared about their employees and treated them well.
Now you're the chef at Granor Farm in Michigan. What does your day to day look like?
Each day is different depending on the season. An average week in the summer for me really gets going on Tuesday (I try to take Mondays off). I check in with Katie Burdett who runs our farm, see how she’s doing. Is there anything that I can be doing to support her or the other farmers that week. Wednesday morning I make breakfast for the farm crew during our weekly meeting and then do any shopping needed for that week’s events in the afternoon. Wednesday are sort of a catch up/ get ahead day. Thursdays I get to help with harvest in the morning, which is critical to me staying connected to the fields, what’s growing, and with the farm team. A lot of menu tweaks happen as I’m helping harvest on Thursdays to showcase new things from the farm. I make Thursday lunch for the crew and then start cooking for the weekend. Fridays I clean the farm house and set up for the weekend’s meals. We have dinner on Friday and Saturday and then Brunch on Sunday morning. After the brunch on Sunday, we do a deep clean of the farm house, help close the farm stand and start brainstorming what will be on the menu the next week.
What's your favorite part of gathering people for a meal?
The conversation. Food is really about people. The stories of the people who grew it and the lives of the people who are eating it together. I love hearing friends having a good time over a meal or seeing a nervous first date ask questions back and forth, getting ever more comfortable as their bellies get fuller.
Your cookbook Ruffage just came out! Could you tell us a little bit about the process of creating the book and your vision for it?
The book is another example of just putting one foot in front of the other and suddenly you’ve reached a goal that is better than you could have imagined. Writing the column solidified my desire to always bring cooking back to the ingredient. The column gave me the structure to work within to organize my thoughts. Then I thought about what I would want out of a deeper dive than what I could do in the paper, so I started fleshing out these ideas. Out of that work came the vision, a guidebook of sorts to a season’s worth of produce. I knew that I wanted it to be organized alphabetically for two reasons. One, I was so influenced by Nigel Slater and Alice Waters’ writing on vegetables and both of those books were organized alphabetically—in a sense it is a nod to their legacy as transformative food writers. Two, I appreciate the idea of organizing cookbooks seasonally and what that teaches, but in reading books that were organized that way, I found myself relying more on the index to find a recipe than reading it from start to finish because seasonable availability in Portland is so different from Traverse City, which is so different from Florida, which is so different from Melbourne. I wanted to create something that had practical implications no matter where you were reading and no matter where (or when) you get your produce.
What do you aim to teach people about purchasing food and cooking?
I hope that Ruffage gives readers a foundational set of skills—how to know what they are looking for when selecting produce (signs of produce to buy or pass by), ideas about how to prepare that ingredient no matter what other ingredients you have on hand (mastering foundational techniques like roasting, braising, pureeing etc), and, finally, that readers will have confidence to cook beyond the page making their own flavor combinations that entice them. I feel grounded in technique and classic flavor pairings, that grounding gives me the structure to play around with new ideas.
Your book is focused on seasonal eating, but do you have 3 ingredient staples that people should keep on hand when cooking from it?
I can turn any vegetable into a meal with a can of chickpeas, a can of tuna, and a healthy swirl of chili oil! Those are my top three pantry items to keep on hand.
At The Glossary, we believe in women working together and helping one another. Why do you think it is important for women to support each other?
I think that our support shouldn’t necessarily be tied to gender, but that women have an innate understanding of some life experiences felt by other women. I had a real watershed moment a few years ago when I realized that my husband never thinks about his own safety when he walks home from the bar. It had never occurred to him that I would take a longer way home to stay on better lit streets. And he is a very thoughtful and pro-woman man. Women understand these things more easily because they are lived. I’ve had more women encourage me with their eyes when I’m clearly nervous giving a speech because they pick up on it. Maybe they know that while speaking with authority on a topic, I might also be thinking “do these shoes actually go with this?”. That camaraderie can also help keep you safe and flourishing. Realizing that other women are going through the same thing that you are, that you can learn from each other. That happens in relationships across genders but I feel, somehow, more at ease learning and surrounding myself with other women.
We have a series called Purchase from Women - what women owned businesses are you encouraging with your dollars?
I buy wine from P+E Bottleshop in Three Oaks, MI, owned by Ellie Mullins. She has a fantastic palette and always has something I’m pumped to try out.
I really love the clogs from Bryr in San Francisco, owned and operated by an all female team. They are so simple but look and feel great.
Ariane Prewitt sources some of the most beautiful items in her shop AP in Lakeside, MI.
I buy fish from Rachel Collins at Flagship in Lakeside MI.
I also ogle the beautiful items from Abigail Heche in Lakeside as well.
What are you trying to learn right now or what is something that you are wanting to learn?
Right now I’m trying to learn how to gracefully accept a compliment. I have always felt like if someone says something nice it is because they are being polite. But I also see how deflecting a compliment or undermining it is unpleasant. So working on how to say thank you without feeling like an egomaniac. And pasta, I’ve been trying to perfect my pasta lately.
What are some of your favorite places in Michigan?
I still feel very at home in Northern MI. I love the views at Peterson Park in Northport, the dunes at Sleeping Bear in Glen Arbor, the meals at Raduno and Alliance in Traverse City. I also really love the dining room at La Beccase in Maple City, it’s so cozy without being dark and overtly sexy.
In Harbor Country, the beaches are incredible. I love night swimming and try to go regularly at Berrien St. beach. I also love running the Warren Dunes in the winter. And Warren Woods in the winter, spring and fall are truly breath taking. I also really love the frozen section at Molly’s Corner—some of the best pierogi I’ve ever had! They have become my new solution to needing to be able to make dinner fast (now that take out is out the window).